A few months ago I had my first 159 experience, with a 1.9 JTDm. While generally finding much to praise in this car, I was not “wowed” in the same way that I was with my first and every subsequent drive of the 156. Much of my slight disappointment stemmed from the fact that it seemed to have lost some of that unique Alfa feeling. More recently, I had a few hours testing out the 3.2 V6 engined Brera. My findings were mixed, finding much to like about the engine, but being far from convinced by the very tight accommodation both for people and luggage, and also somewhat unsure on the visual aesthetics of the styling. So, thanks to the kind people at Fish Brothers in Swindon, who let me have a 159 3.2 Lusso for the weekend, I was hoping to find what could be the best overall combination of what is good about Alfa Romeo in the 21st Century, and the pick of the current range. Question is: is this the case?.
Let’s be clear, there is plenty that is good. It starts with the styling. Whilst it is still not quite up to the standards of the original 156, I think this is one of the best looking saloons on the market. Not since an Alfa last graced my driveway have I gained so much visual pleasure from looking out from an upstairs window and seeing quite such an elegant car parked up. And since I typically reverse on to the drive, actually the car’s best angle, the front end, with its sharp creases and the three round headlights on either side of the dramatic Alfa v-shaped grille remained hidden from view. Without question, the bright silver paintwork, and the telephone dial alloy wheel trims enhance the car more than somewhat, looking far better under an English winter sky than the more sober grey colours that you often see. To emphasise the point, the car proved sufficiently striking that my mother – not known for showing the remotest interest in a car as anything more than a means of getting from “A” to “B”, felt moved to go inside, fetch the camera and take a couple of pictures.
The good visual impression continues inside, too. The overall ambience is exactly the same as the Brera, and to my mind, the brushed aluminium silver trim looks far better than most inserts that are added to increase the appeal and usually have the completely opposite effect. The only difference between this one and the earlier 159 I drove was the presence of a large screen for the Sat Nav and combined radio system. Whilst this looked perfectly acceptable, it also proved too complex to be intuitive as a radio. If I had resorted to the manual, I am sure I could have figured out how to find a radio frequency that was not pre-set, but I did not manage to by trying the clues that were presented on the screen. Like many cars now, too complex, even if it is not even close to iDrive territory, and it controls no other functions than non-driving-critical ones. Back on the interior appeal, the soft leather upholstery – finished in black on the test car was lovely to look at, equally lovely to touch and to sit on. The seats proved very comfortable, too. A couple of other things did come to light: the door pillar is very wide, so there is a bit of an awkward blind spot at angled junctions that I am not used to in the Audi; and the headlights on main beam are awesome, but they did not seem to throw the light that far ahead on dipped – but then most cars are like that!
Of course, no matter how stylish an Alfa might be to look at, it is really the driving experience that counts. I was expecting this 159 to be much like the Brera, and indeed it proved to be so. Gone is the really distinctive Alfa sound, replaced by a more muted noise, almost to quiet and refined. It is still aurally pleasing, but nothing like what you used to get. If you push the engine hard, though – and this is an engine that seems to revel in you so doing – some of that appealing bark does come back. The 159 3.2 goes well, but it is pretty undramatic in the way it does it. Whereas in the past, the top engined mid-sized Alfas left you in little doubt that you were in a sports saloon, rather than a saloon with a large and powerful engine, this one came across more as refined and rather brisk express. Like the Brera, it is blessed with an excellent gearchange – positive, and with short throws between the six gears. A combination of the 57/43 split four wheel drive system, and the necessary electronics mean that there is no trace of the torque steer that was once a feature of powerful front wheel drive Alfas, so it proved easy to accelerate away briskly on damp surfaces, and those with loose gravel, with no unintended effects. The steering is light, but not unduly so, and gave a far better indication of what the front wheels were going to do than many of my recent test cars. The lock is not quite as quick as that on the 155s and 156s, but for ordinary motoring, I felt this was no disadvantage. On a couple of occasions, I still had to make two attempts to get right around a tight curve that someone else in a different car was able to execute in a single manoeuvre. I was also worried about grounding the car, and the fact that it was not mine and therefore needed to be extra careful not to return it damaged. The boot is actually quite short, but once the parking sensors started beeping, I erred on the side of caution when trying to park it!
The seats are comfortable, and adjust sufficiently in all directions to get a good driving position. Despite the fact that the 159 is considerably larger than its predecessor, there is not a commensurate increase in space in the rear of the car, which remains on the less than spacious side. The boot is larger, and most notably it is deeper than before, and should easily accommodate luggage for 4 people. An extended test drive frequently brings to light small features – good and bad – that do not become so apparent on a shorter drive. So it proved, having 2 days and 400 miles of mixed motoring this time, was the previous 159 test was half that time and distance and mostly conducted on the motorway. What I did notice, and was less pleased about is just how wide the B post and pillar is, and thus visibility at sharply angled junctions, especially looking to the right, was less than perfect, with a blind spot. It’s the sort of thing I suspect that an owner would quickly get used to, but I found it a little challenging on a couple of occasions. My struggles with the radio not-withstanding, I did also find that the reception was not always the best, and it was sometimes slow to change to a stronger FM frequency as I travelled around. Maybe a careful perusal of the instruction manual would have revealed a sub-optimal setting, but if that is the case, then the system is not intuitive enough.
24 hours after receiving the car, I met up with Piers, so he – not renowned for having quite the same soft spot for Alfas as I do – could have a look. At the time, even I was not sure what to make of the 159. By the time I returned it, I had covered over 400 miles, and the more I drove it, the more I decided I liked the car. Indeed, I was rather sorry to hand it back, even though I was returning to my much loved Audi S4! Perhaps this says something about what an Alfa has to be, to compete in the 21st Century. Previous Alfas had instant appeal, and then for some people, too many little things emerged that they did not like, which put them off. In taking some of the “Alfa-ness” away, what remains is more subtle – an Alfa for people who did not previously know that they liked Alfa’s, it would seem.
Overall, then, I am impressed. This is a very real contender as my next car. If I had not had a couple of S4, I would probably cut to the chase and order it now…………. but I have been spoiled by S4 power and a V8, so the next test car, next weekend, will see me back behind 8 cylinders of the 4 rings. Watch this space!